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Engineering Like a Bird

Science and Children—January/February 2022 (Volume 59, Issue 3)

By Sagan Goodpaster and Rebecca Krall

In our elementary science methods course, we have integrated hands-on learning experiences that cultivate excitement about teaching science and equip our preservice teachers (PSTs) with a range of activities and teaching strategies that they can readily utilize in their own instruction. In addition, we incorporate opportunities for our PSTs to practice the engineering design process.

A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC 2012) calls for engineering design to be elevated to the same level as inquiry in science and recommends that engineering design be frequently incorporated throughout every grade level. This recommendation is reflected in one of the major shifts in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): incorporating engineering design in the performance expectations for grades K–12. We have found that our PSTs often feel overwhelmed by the prospect of meaningfully integrating engineering design into their science lessons, so we developed an integrated life science and engineering design unit following the 5E instructional model (Bybee and Landes 1990) to help them understand that there are many avenues for this integration, sometimes even in unexpected places.

The third-grade unit we introduced to our PSTs applies engineering design to nest building as they explore the intricacies of bird nest designs. The activities offer opportunities for place-based outdoor learning, which has been shown to have a variety of benefits for elementary students. Specifically, outdoor learning can positively impact students’ mental and physical health, promote positive environmental attitudes, and facilitate science learning (Cronin-Jones 2000; Tanner and Ernst 2013; Wirth and Rosenow 2012). Effectively connecting classroom learning with outdoor learning ensures that students have meaningful experiences with the target content (Cronin-Jones 2000). Birds are familiar members of every neighborhood, making them a great focal point for learning that can activate students’ prior knowledge as they learn standards-aligned science concepts and practice the engineering design process.

Activity Overview

Students in any region, rural or urban, have seen or interacted with birds in some way and will likely have some funds of knowledge about birds to share in class. We designed the activities in this unit to allow students to build on that knowledge and begin to better understand their feathered neighbors by seeing some unique nest-building strategies. We added a neighborhood walk for our PSTs to observe birds in their area and a research activity to learn more about a local species. PSTs then applied that information in the engineering design process to build nests that can help birds in their community thrive, a challenge adapted from Engineering Go for It! ([eGFI]; Lord 2014) and the National Park Service (2019). We emphasized the iterative process of design thinking by encouraging our students to design a solution (i.e., a model bird nest), test their design, and then modify their design to better fit the requirements. Further, we outlined specific design criteria and constraints that limited their designs.

Engage: Bird Adaptations

To capture student interest and illustrate the ingenuity of bird engineering, we highlighted some of the amazing ways birds from different habitats can build nests where they can successfully raise their young. We began by showing several BBC Wildlife YouTube videos (see Online Resources) to showcase the wide range of nest building techniques birds employ, sometimes even by birds of the same species. These videos emphasized birds’ incredible engineering skills and helped to spark our students’ imaginations. We explained to students that these techniques are called adaptations, which can allow birds to more successfully raise their young in the local habitat (LS4.C). We followed the videos with a collection of photos highlighting interesting bird nests in our region to illustrate that the adaptations shown in the videos were not unique to birds in distant places but could even be seen locally (Figure 1). We then proposed the driving question of our unit: What characteristics of birds’ nests help them survive in my neighborhood? We asked students to think about birds and nests they have observed around their homes and how the construction of those nests might help the nestlings survive.

Figure 1
A local Robin's nest

A local robin's nest

Explore: Neighborhood Walk

With these adaptations in mind, we gave our students an opportunity to explore birds in their local environment. We first implemented this unit virtually after our university closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and our students had returned to their homes. Because of this, we asked students to take 10–15 minutes to walk around their neighborhood or to explore the area outside of their homes to look for birds and to note what they were doing. In addition, we asked them to look for potential food sources, nesting materials, and forms of shelter. Students were required to record a FlipGrid video (see during their walk to show what they observed. After posting their videos, students watched at least one peer’s video and posted a reply, creating a virtual community among our PSTs even in the isolated world created by the pandemic. We watched these videos and provided feedback as a formative assessment.

Explain: Bird Research

To build on their observations from the neighborhood walk, we asked PSTs to research a particular bird species in their area. We utilized the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, All About Birds (see Online Resources), to help students select a bird species from their area and learn more about it (e.g., its size and weight, habitat, food sources, predators, nest-building adaptations). A rubric was provided to guide their work (see Supplementary Resources). Because we first implemented this part of the unit as asynchronous work during the early days of the pandemic, we had students conduct the research independently and post their findings in the form of a FlipGrid video. This gave us a way to showcase a variety of birds at once. Again, we asked students to view and reply to at least one peer’s video to build community at a distance.

Although this worked well, we have modified the lesson to foster student collaboration now that our PSTs have returned to campus by asking them to work in small groups of four to conduct the research. Each group selected one bird species from a list of common birds in our region. Group members worked collaboratively to gather information as they answered each of the guiding questions (Table 1), which were displayed on a Google Slides template (Figure 2; see Supplementary Resources for template). While this approach limited the number of bird species students researched, it decreased the time needed to complete the research and later created the opportunity to illustrate differences in nest building behaviors among birds within our region. Groups were placed into breakout rooms in Zoom and given 15–20 minutes to research their species and cooperatively develop their slide. During this time, we monitored their progress in Google Slides and checked in with each group as needed. When they were finished researching, each group presented their species to the class using their Google Slide. This allowed all students to benefit from the research conducted by each group, both in learning about multiple species within a habitat and comparing nest building strategies across different species. The activity also created space for PSTs to construct explanations about how the nesting habits of birds are dependent upon the available resources in the area (Constructing Explanations).

Extend: Design Process

Our students were then ready to apply their knowledge to the design process. We presented a scenario where a bird’s nest had been damaged and it needed a new one in which to raise its young. We challenged our PSTs to design a solution to this problem by building their own nest for the bird to use (Designing Solutions). Because they were still learning virtually, we asked our PSTs to design and build their nests individually rather than in groups, but they were encouraged to consult with their peers when possible. In line with the engineering design process, their nests were required to meet an established set of criteria: the same general size and shape of the particular bird species they had researched, strong enough to withstand wind and rain, and camouflaged to limit predation. They were also asked to work within the constraints of only using natural materials to the extent possible and completing their design, test, and redesign within 110 minutes (i.e., the length of one class period). Although we did ask students to use natural materials they collected from outside (e.g., sticks, mud, etc.), we also allowed them to substitute materials using things from around their homes as long as they explained what the substitutions represented (e.g., yarn for feather lining, glue for the bird’s saliva). After they planned their nest designs, they built their model (Figure 3).

Table 1. Guiding research questions.

Group Member 1

Where is your bird species found on the Range Map? In what habitat are they commonly found?

Group Member 2

What does your bird species eat? How does your bird collect food?

Group Member 3

How large is your bird? How many eggs do they lay? What predators does your bird have?

Group Member 4

How do they build their nests? Where do they build them? What materials do they use?

Figure 2
Research example.

Research example.

After building their first model design, students selected one of three options for testing it: (1) the size test, (2) the strength test, or (3) the predation test (Developing Possible Solutions). Only one test was required in order to fit the time allotted to our class. The size test involved placing the appropriate number of “eggs” (e.g., egg-sized rocks) in the nest based on the information collected during the research phase; some students also added a stuffed animal or other object to represent the size of the bird. The strength test involved blowing on the nest for 30 seconds with a hair dryer or fan to simulate strong winds or using the shower or faucet to simulate rain. The predation test involved hiding the nest in an outdoor area and giving a partner 30 seconds to try to find it. Students most often selected the size and/or strength test. Based on their results of the test, students were to make modifications to their design before conducting a second test. One student was unable to make modifications or conduct the second test after her first model nest blew apart in the “wind.” Other students found their nests fit the size test and did not make further modifications.


To evaluate students’ nest construction, students presented their final nest design in a short FlipGrid video. In addition to showing the final model, they (1) described their design process, including what worked well, challenges they faced, and how they had overcome those challenges; and (2) detailed outcomes of their tests and modifications made afterward. Some students also demonstrated their second test. A rubric was provided to help guide their presentations (see Supplementary Resources). During our next class meeting, we placed PSTs in Zoom breakout rooms with their research groups and asked them to compare their nest designs. This was followed by a whole-class discussion in which each group had an opportunity to discuss the nests they had made and the results of their testing. Students discussed how their designs compared to what an actual bird would create, and explained any discrepancies their nests showed. For example, one student mentioned that her nest was not as circular as a robin’s nest because she was not able to bend the sticks that she had used to create her model. When discussing their test results, we prompted students to consider cause and effect in relation to the materials and building strategies chosen (Cause and Effect), asking questions like “What caused the nest to succeed or fail? Was the success of the nest caused by the materials used or by the overall design?” We further asked students to argue which materials and/or nest building strategies worked best (or did not work) based on evidence from their research and design testing (Engaging in Argument from Evidence).

Connecting to the Elementary Classroom

Because our students are elementary preservice teachers, we taught this unit as it would be taught to third-grade students to model appropriate activities and teaching strategies. However, there are additional considerations for teaching this unit in the elementary classroom. In the Engage phase, third-grade students could read Amelia Bedelia Is for the Birds (Parish 2015), allowing for literacy integration. In this story Amelia makes observations of birds and their nesting behaviors, which third-grade students can connect to their own observation experiences. Students could also draw pictures of birds in the environment around their homes or, for ELL students, in the environments from their native countries. When designing their nests, students’ plans should be checked for consistency with materials their bird would typically use and to provide feedback on possible building strategies. In an in-person classroom, students can work in small groups to share their nests and discuss possible modifications to nest designs.

For students with differing abilities, a variety of accommodations could be incorporated into this unit. In the Engage phase, video subtitles could be turned on for hearing impaired students. Similarly, the photos of local nest examples could be described or modeled for visually impaired students. Likewise, natural nesting materials such as dried grasses, sticks, and feathers could be provided for visually impaired students to explore their function in nest building (e.g., structure, insulation). When asking students to explore outdoors, accessibility must be considered for students with any range of physical disabilities. For all students—but especially those with cognitive disabilities or behavioral disorders—clear expectations should be established before going outside. With in-person instruction, students can be paired for the exploration phase so that they may assist one another. Further, students can be grouped for the nest design process with in-person instruction. If this strategy is used, roles should be assigned to each group member (e.g., nest architect, nestling ergonomic engineer) to ensure participation, and the contributions of each student to the overall design should be acknowledged.

In addition to establishing clear expectations for outdoor explorations, safe practices for exploring outdoors and collecting natural materials were discussed with our PSTs and should certainly be addressed with elementary students. When learning virtually, third-grade students may need to be accompanied by a guardian if they intend to stray from the immediate vicinity of their homes. With in-person instruction, the entire class could take a nature walk around the school grounds to observe different birds, their nesting behaviors, and natural materials available for nest building. In either case, students should be reminded to avoid collecting poisonous plants/collecting sticks with thorns, damaging plants, and disturbing animal homes. Although birds are relatively tenacious and unlikely to abandon their nestlings (Boyd 2007), it is best to advise students to keep a respectful distance and observe with their eyes only.


Through the completion of this 5E nest building unit, our students learned life science content through outdoor observations and research and gained firsthand experience with the engineering design process by defining a problem, developing a solution, and then optimizing that solution through testing and reevaluating their nest design. Reflections written at the end of the project illustrated changes in PSTs’ views about engineering design. For example, one PST explained, “I learned that when engineering something from scratch, there will more than likely be multiple failed attempts, but that is okay.” PSTs also learned that humans are not the only organisms capable of design thinking—birds are impressive engineers as well! As one student stated, “I did not realize how complex building a nest could be, especially when there are external factors to prepare for such as rain, wind, and other predators. When I previously thought about engineering, I thought of mathematical equations and now I see it in a broader lens of gaining problem-solving skills.” This unit helped our students develop an appreciation for their feathered neighbors and consider small ways they can help birds thrive.

Figure 3
Examples of students’ nest models.

Examples of students’ nest models.

Online Resources

Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology All about Birds

How birds camouflage their nests

How birds survive winter

Social weaver birds nest in a tree in Africa

Supplementary Resources

Download the research template and rubrics at

Sagan Goodpaster ( is a PhD candidate and graduate research assistant at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. Rebecca Krall ( is an associate professor of STEM education at the University of Kentucky.


Boyd, R. 2007. Fact or Fiction?: Birds (and Other Critters) Abandon Their Young at the Slightest Human Touch. Scientific American.

Bybee, R., and N.M. Landes. 1990. Science for life and living: An elementary school science program from Biological Sciences Improvement Study (BSCS). The American Biology Teacher 52 (2): 92–98.

Cronin-Jones, L.L. 2000. The effectiveness of schoolyards as sites for elementary science instruction. School Science and Mathematics 100 (4): 203–211.

Lord, M. 2014. Think Like a Bird. eGFI.

National Park Service. 2019. Think Like a Bird. National Park Service Student Activities.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Parish, H. 2015. Amelia Bedelia is for the Birds. Greenwillow Books.

Tanner, D., and J. Ernst. 2013. Who goes there? Linking remote cameras and schoolyard science to empower action. Journal of Experiential Education 36 (2): 106–122. DOI: 10.1177/1053825913487888

Wirth, S., and N. Rosenow. 2012. Supporting whole-child learning in nature-filled outdoor classrooms. Young Children 67 (1): 42–48.

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